What follows is an equally naked production, stripped down to its essence (director Charles Newell has cut one-third of the play, including all references to Fortinbras) and stunning in its bare emotions and simplicity. This Hamlet is entirely focused on the story of the prince's grief and how that grief turns toward revenge. It's a disarmingly transparent presentation that makes Shakespeare's oft-produced classic feels like a fresh new play.
Newell's inventive direction turns every section of the intimate Court Theater into a playing area. When Horatio and his cronies see the ghost of Hamlet's father, they run along darkened catwalks high above the heads of the audience while the ghost remains below, walking the aisles of the theater and nodding to them from beneath his torch. When characters converse, there are always others lurking and watching--on walkways above the claustrophobic, slanting metal of Narelle Sisson's set, behind a white scrim, even below the stage. Hamlet delivers his "To be or not to be" monologue while sitting casually on the edge of the stage.
Newell's most effective innovations achieve the twin goals of narrative and emotional clarity. Live video is used to expose the almost-hidden feelings of characters at two climactic points, one in each act. The director has also shuffled Hamlet's monologues ("To be or not to be" now comes at the beginning of the second act) so that they seem to make more emotional sense than ever before. André Pluess and Ben Sussman's sound design, John Culbert's flashes of light and dark, and Joyce Kim Lee's garish costumes helps create a clattering, cold world of intensity and intrigue.
Guy Adkins' Hamlet is a revelation. He does not hide behind an air of mystery or madness. Rather, in the hands of this youthful, physically slight actor, Hamlet is nothing more than an impulsive college student--sometimes impudent, sometimes kind--trying to reason himself out of his grief. When those around him only seem interested in his betrayal, that grief hardens to anger and anger becomes directed toward retribution.
The rest of the cast is equally adept. Cassandra Bissell is a surprisingly strong Ophelia, exiting not with a whisper but with manic ferocity. Timothy Hendrickson is a timid, almost rabbity Horatio, simply not strong enough to deter his beloved friend from his own destruction. Kevin Gudahl is manipulative and thoughtful as Hamlet's uncle and stepfather, Claudius; Barbara E. Robertson is a hard-edged Gertrude who knows that she has done wrong; and John Reeger gives Polonius a coat of wisdom that balances his hot-air pronouncements.
Even Rosencrantz (Lance Baker) and Guildenstern (Brian Hamman) are freshly conceived: We see how strong their friendship with Hamlet must have been and understand how deeply their betrayal runs. This production is welcome because it is filled with those sorts of insights.